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After tough year, Bryce Harper ready for playoff run with Nats, city of D.C.

After tough year, Bryce Harper ready for playoff run with Nats, city of D.C.

As surprising as Bryce Harper's 2016 season has been, with his numbers falling off dramatically from one year ago when he won the NL MVP award, the current situation he finds himself in is a familiar one. 

Harper just finished a year that did not live up to his standards. He was hampered at times by injuries, including one to his left thumb. The way he closed this year, with a so-so final month, leaves uncertainty for what to expect in the playoffs.

There are, one could argue, some parallels to the 2014 season when the Nats won their division without Harper at full strength and without him playing his best down the stretch. That October, he proceeded to catch fire against the Giants in the NLDS, hitting three homers in four games with 15 total bases in 17 at-bats.

Despite what has transpired over the last few months, Harper knows the postseason offers him a clean slate. Everything, as they say, starts at zero.

"Nothing matters for the season anymore," he said. "That's how it is. That's how the postseason works. It doesn't matter what you did during the season, what your numbers were or how you did. It doesn't matter if you had 20 wins or if you had five, or if you hit .220 or hit .350. The postseason is a different animal. It's a different place. It's a lot of fun to be a part of and I'm looking forward to getting back into it."

[RELATED: Cubs enter MLB playoffs as favorites to win World Series]

That is not to diminish what Harper has gone through this season, a year that saw his batting average drop to .243 from .330 the year before. His OPS fell nearly .300 points from 1.109 to .814. 

After posting a 9.9 WAR in 2015, one of the best in recent baseball history, he topped out at 1.6 this year. That ranked sixth among just Nats position players. Rookie Trea Turner finished ahead of him and so did Danny Espinosa, who hit just .209.

Harper knows his production fell way short of where he hoped it would be, but is pleased with the end result.

"I think there's been some ups and downs, for sure. But as a team and as an organization, I think it's been great, for me to have a down year and for us to do what we did," he said. 

"I'll take 24 homers and 86 RBI for a down year. I'll take that any day of the week. I'm just excited to get going and get to playing in the postseason. Hopefully I can keep stealing bags and playing good defense, hopefully mix a few homers in there and just have a good series."

[RELATED: Nats' Turner wins NL Rookie of the Month award again]

Harper certainly knows what is required to make an impact in the playoffs. Back in 2012, when he was a rookie in his first postseason, he homered, tripled and doubled in the Nats' five-game series against the Cardinals.

But his role on the Nationals is now different than it was in 2012, and even in 2014. He is a centerpiece in their lineup. No longer is Harper an inexperienced player from which a big series would merely be a bonus. He is expected to do great things and lead the way for those who haven't been there before.

"I don't think you're ever going to know what it's going to be like until you play there. I've always just said that I've played in way bigger games in my life from when I was 10 years old until now. It's just the same game you've been playing your whole life," he said.

"It's a lot of fun. I love to play under the bright lights. I love being on primetime. I look forward to those games. I look forward to facing the best in baseball. It's something that I thrive on. It's something that I really enjoy. Seeing my family up in the stands, I really enjoy those moments with them."

[RELATED: Nationals ready for Dodgers and the MLB playoffs]

Harper is also looking forward to what this Nationals playoff run could mean to the city of Washington. If they win the NLDS and advance just one round, they will go further than any other D.C. major sports team (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) has since 1998, when the Capitals were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals. It has been 18 years. No other North American city with at least three major sports franchises has waited longer.

The Nationals will try to capture D.C.'s first world championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992. That was 24 years ago. It's not quite the title drought the Cavaliers just broke for Cleveland, but that's a very long time.

Washington is starved for a deep playoff run and Harper wants it to be a collective effort as the Nationals try to deliver one.

"I hope everybody takes an Uber and doesn't take the train. Once the train leaves at 11:30, our stadium is empty. Hopefully that doesn't happen," he said, referring to the uncertainty of D.C. Metro staying open for late playoff games.

"But I think the way our fans react to the postseason, they've done a great job. I think as an organization we've done a great job to really connect with the fans. I know we're going to be sold out. I know that this place is excited.

"You have all winter long to watch the Redskins. You have all winter long to watch the Capitals. Let's have some fun and play these next three weeks out. Let's enjoy it and do it together. Not just the fans here, but this is for the fans up in Montreal, as well, who had the Expos. Hopefully we can do everything possible to win some ballgames and get to where we need to be."

[RELATED: Bryce and Bryan Harper: Brothers, best friends and baseball]

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Sean Doolittle reacts to Houston Astros’ sign stealing allegations

Sean Doolittle reacts to Houston Astros’ sign stealing allegations

All eyes in the baseball world are on the Houston Astros this week as they’re investigated for allegedly stealing signs using a high-powered camera in 2017 after The Athletic published a report Tuesday that included a former player of the team verifying the accusations.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle weighed in on the scandal Thursday night on Twitter, posting a thread commemorating Mike Fiers and Carson Smith for speaking out before slamming teams who go around the accepted rules for stealing signs.

Doolittle and the Nationals faced Houston in the 2019 World Series; although there’s no evidence the Astros used these sign-stealing techniques against them, The Washington Post reported that pitching coach Paul Menhart ordered the pitching staff to use more complex signs in the World Series in order to combat any potential wrongdoing on Houston’s part.

The Boston Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017 for using an Apple Watch to steal signs from the New York Yankees, after which commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement warning teams “that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Major League Baseball is investigating the allegations, with no timetable given for a conclusion. For now, Doolittle has a suggestion for how to spend your time.

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Dodgers' Cody Bellinger wins NL MVP, Anthony Rendon finishes third

Dodgers' Cody Bellinger wins NL MVP, Anthony Rendon finishes third

Anthony Rendon’s night went as expected Thursday. He finished third in National League MVP voting. 

Los Angeles slugger Cody Bellinger won the award for the first time in his career. Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich was second.

1. Cody Bellinger: 19 first-place votes, 10 second-place votes, 1 fifth-place vote

2. Christian Yelich: 10 first-place votes, 18 second-place votes, 1 third-place vote, 1 fourth-place vote

3. Anthony Rendon: 1 first-place vote, 1 second-place vote, 24 third-place votes, 3 fourth-place votes, 1 fifth-place vote

Rendon finished his best season with a 1.010 OPS, good for third in the National League, and a league-leading 126 RBIs and 44 doubles. By any measure, Rendon’s performance in 2019 exceeded those of his past years. His OPS-plus, WAR, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and average were all career bests. However, those numbers were not enough to take the award from Yelich or Bellinger, both of whom dominated the league throughout the season.

Bellinger led the NL in bWAR and tied with Yelich in fWAR. Yelich led the league in slugging percentage and OPS. Despite his totals being truncated by a season-ending knee injury -- a foul ball cracked his kneecap Sept. 10 -- Yelich remained a premier choice for the award. 

His .671 slugging percentage was the highest in the National League since Albert Pujols delivered the same number in 2006. He also stole 30 bases. Yelich led Bellinger in multiple statistics: Adjusted OPS-plus, average, slugging percentage and OPS. The question for voters became whether Yelich missing most of September was enough to undermine his case for the award.

Bellinger significantly increased his plate discipline en route to his best season. Bellinger swung at strikes 70.4 percent of the time, boosting his overall contact rate by almost six percent. His contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone also went up since his attempts at such pitches declined.

Defining “value” is always part of the MVP discussion. Los Angeles was the league’s best team during the regular season. So, without Bellinger, where does it stand? It is in very good shape, but likely not a 106-win club. Milwaukee won 89 games. Thirteen of those wins came during a September surge without Yelich. Should he be penalized for the team, as a whole, playing well after his injury? Voters had to decide.

Both made the postseason, which is also sometimes used as a voting marker to determine value.

Three other Nationals also made their way onto ballots. Leftfielder Juan Soto placed ninth with 45 points while starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer finished 17th and 23rd, respectively. Strasburg and Scherzer also finished in the top five of NL Cy Young voting, which was announced Wednesday night.

The award, of late, has been passed around. Barry Bonds dominated it with four consecutive wins from 2001-2004. Albert Pujols commanded it next, winning three times between 2005-2009. There has not been a repeat winner since Pujols won his third in 2009. Joey Votto won in 2010; Ryan Braun in 2011; Buster Posey in 2012; Andrew McCutchen in 2013; Clayont Kershaw in 2014; Bryce Harper in 2015; Kris Bryant in 2016; Giancarlo Stanton in 2017 and Yelich last year. 

Bellinger, just 24 years old, will receive his chance in 2020.

Matt Weyrich contributed to this report.

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